The image of the proud Native warrior, adorned in a cascade of feathers and decorated with materials drawn from the landscape, symbolises the popular Indiegous contribution to the ‘Americana’. It is no coincidence that the popular impression of the Native American draws upon the image of those who are Naitve to the Great Plains region.
Whilst many forms of resistance, including the simple act of surviving, have been undertaken by Native American people against European colonialism, the military wars with the ‘Sioux’ people of the Great Plains are perhaps the most visible recollection of Indigous resistance.
The name Sioux is actually an abbreviation of Nadouessioux (“Adders”; i.e., enemies), a name originally applied to them by the Ojibwa Tribe. Infact, The Great Sioux Nation is actually made up of 18 separate tribes (or bands in the US) and 12 in Canada. These are divided into three divisions: the Lakota, Dakota, and the Nakota people. These people fought in 7 major wars with the European settlers, the Lakota people were also victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre which killed approximately 300 Lakota people- one of the worst massacres in US history. The resistance and persecution of the Sioux people is symbolically felt across collective Native American culture. The Great Plains war bonnet has become a symbol revered dearly to us and recognizable around the globe.
One of the most famous people to wear the War Bonnet is the American legend, Tȟašúŋke Witkó, Chief Crazy Horse. Chief of the Lakota Oglala band (meaning “to scatter their own”), Crazy Horse was the son of a father of the same name, he became War Chief of the Oglalas in 1868 at the age of 24, decorating himself with yellow lightning-bolt war paint, as he was instructed to in a vision. Crazy Horse secured famous military victories over european settler encroachment on Lakota land, perhaps the most notable being the Battle of Little Big Horn where he joined Sitting Bull to defend the land from General Custer and gold prospectors who had swarmed the land in violation of the Laramie Treaty.
Despite resisting being photographed, Crazy Horse’s supposed likeness has been used in various efforts to mark Native American history; in 1982 he was honoured by the U.S. Postal Service in 1982 with a 13¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
One particular movement has seen Crazy Horses names and image reach headlines again in 2019, 142 years after he was killed, reportedly for attempting to leave the reservation without ‘permission’. In 1939, a Lakota elder named Henry Standing Bear wrote to a Polish-Irish American sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, at the start of what would become a new decisive chapter in Crazy Horse’s legacy. Ziolkowski had worked briefly on Mt Rushmore, a monument of great controversy among Native Amercians. The carving of Mt Rushmore presents a specific narrative of American History and wordlessly symbolizes the construction of the story of the United States of America. “The source from which so much strange Americana flows is Mt. Rushmore, which, with the stately columns and the Avenue of Flags leading up to it, seems to leave the historical mess behind” – writes Brook Jarvis for the New Yorker.
Mt Rushmore stands within the Black Hills and is named Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain, by the Lakota, the original human inhabitants of the land. Tunkasila Sakpe Paha and the Black Hills are a sacred site to the Lakota, as Donovin Sprague, academic and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member told the National Geographic: “it’s the center of the universe for our people”. The Black Hills are known, in the Lakota language, as He Sapa or Paha Sapa—names that are sometimes translated as “the heart of everything that is.” Henry Standing Bear proposed to Ziolkowski the idea of a sculpture of Chief Crazy Horse to be carved into the Black Hills, writing “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man had great heroes too.” Ziolkowski liked the idea and began working on a plan for the carving.
According to Ziolkowski, “Standing Bear grew very angry when he spoke of the broken treaty of 1868. That was the one I’d read about in which the President promised the Black Hills would belong to the Indians forever. I remember how his old eyes flashed out of that dark mahogany face, then he would shake his head and fall silent for a long while.” Henry Standing Bear’s lifetime spanned an era of extreme change for his people, living through the times of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Indian recognition act. Dennis Compos, Henry Standing Bear’s grandson said, “It was his dream. After they put Mount Rushmore there in the Black Hills, the Black Hills being our sacred land, my grandfather got the idea.”
Ziolkowski died in 1982 only having partly finished the sculpture, his daughter, Ruth Ziolkowski then oversaw the project until its completion in 1998. The monument now attracts millions of visitors a year, and has an attached museum dedicated to the Lakota tribe. Crazy Horses carving in stone remains perhaps as controversial as the Chief was in life. In 2003, Seth Big Crow, then a spokesperson for Crazy Horse’s living relatives, told the Voice of America the sculpture’s commission had possibly given the Ziolkowskis a “free hand to try to take over the name and make money off it as long as they’re alive.” Many also indicate the Chief’s alleged adversity to the capturing of his image. For some Lakota, however, the sculpture inspires pride: “It’s the one large carving that they can’t tear down,” Amber Two Bulls, a twenty-six-year-old Lakota woman, told a New Yorker reporter.
Crazy Horses spirit and character continues to play a unique role in the minds of many. To Natives, he helped shape the way in which our culture is imagined and reimagined, demonstrating resistance and courage against those to whom our existence is an inconvenience. For the rest of the world, Crazy Horse was one of the men who brought forward an image of the Native Amercians that transcended his life, band and tribe.
“Although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured. His dislike of the oncoming civilization was prophetic. Unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the encounter”.
— Ian Frazier, Great Plains.